Heat up your preaching without burning yourself out
Many of my friends have confessed that occasionally they lose the passion in their preaching. In fact, most preachers have experienced this at least once in their ministry. Though few openly admit this, it is a secret that can’t be hidden, because its symptoms eventually diminish the power of a pastor’s preaching.
I remember reading several years ago about the account of a man who sat listening to a sermon, uneasy about the emotions he was feeling. The worship experience had been excellent; the sermon was well thought out, understandable, and even applicable. Yet, as he listened, the man felt an unshakable sense of boredom. Where did it come from? He wondered why he felt no enthusiasm about the challenge of this message. It was well into the sermon when suddenly it dawned on him: He was bored because the pastor was bored—with another Sunday morning that demanded another 20-minute message delivered out of duty and without passion.
If you have lost the passion in your preaching or if you sometimes find yourself preaching only because “Sunday is coming,” I hope the following three suggestions will help you begin a journey of restoring that passion.
1. Rethink Your Preparation Process
Years ago, one of our Dynamic Communicator Workshop students made a thought-provoking statement that I will never forget. He said, “I do not study that I might preach, but because I study, I must preach.”
Wow! Perhaps, if we study with the intent of meeting God rather than preparing for a performance, if we excitedly look forward to field-testing the truth in our own lives, then we would not only talk about the truth—we could testify to the truth.
When our study makes an impact on our lives, it can’t help but make us passionate about the message. Then the work of putting structure to that message is a joy. If we experience the adventure of living out our relationship with Christ in the fabric of our lives, then the power of our preaching will show it. If our relationship with Christ is dynamic, then we can expect our audience to feel it. If not, they will hear only static.
From conversations with our students, my pastor friends, and from my own experience, I have come to believe that passionate preaching is the natural by-product of an ongoing, growing relationship with Jesus Christ. Too often, we become immersed in the business of running a church, preparing messages, putting out fires, counseling, and yes, even winning souls, and we forget that the foundation of our passion is relationship—our own relationship with Christ.
2. Lean on the Spirit
The responsibility of preaching the Gospel is daunting. The thought of doing it every week boggles my mind. Take that weight on your own shoulders, and the stage is set for burnout. All of us have days when we don’t feel the passion, when in spite of our careful preparation and strong conviction, we stumble over words and lose our train of thought. There is something about depending on the Spirit of God to do what you can’t that brings supernatural confidence and passion to preaching. Suggesting that we lean on the Spirit is not an excuse to skip the hard work of preparation, but to ignore the role of the Spirit is an invitation to murder the passion in our preaching.
Years ago, I spoke at a Promise Keepers conference to a stadium full of men. I had prepared carefully and was passionate about my topic. But oh, how I struggled through that message! I felt none of the usual euphoria and confidence that can make such an opportunity so much fun. When I finished, I stepped backstage and apologized to the host for such a poor performance. He told me that he was deeply moved by the message and spun me around to see hundreds of men responding to the invitation that I had given. I was overcome with the realization that the Holy Spirit had used both my weakness and my strength to accomplish His purpose.
Even when you don’t feel it, preach with passion! The Spirit has you covered. Isaiah 55:9 says, “…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” If you believe this, it will be easier to accept the next suggestion.
3. Never Forget Who It’s About
Preaching is not about you or me. Rather than trusting the power of the God’s Word and the role of the Spirit, we can begin to depend solely on our delivery skills, and this is where we get caught in the performance trap. It is imperative that we communicate with excellence and use every talent, every tool in the box to reach our audience with the good news. But if performance is our main focus, then passion will get lost in the shuffle. We will always be concerned about how the audience is responding to us. We begin to believe that every message must be better than the last. In an effort to preach bigger and better, we may even find ourselves preaching other people’s sermons as our own. I’m sure that was never the intent of Internet ministry tools.
Preaching is about giving to the audience, not about taking something from them. There is a subtle seduction to lean on the response of the audience to determine the value of our presentation and even our self-worth. As a comedian and performer who proclaims Christ, I have to remind myself over and over that I am not here to impress the audience or gain personal gratification from their response. I am here to GIVE! I was created to give of my talents and to use them to declare a message that delivers and heals and opens the door to eternal life. It is not about taking; it is about giving. Communicators who embrace this “give” principle can rid themselves of the debilitating “What will they think of me” fear.
The worst message I ever delivered:
The worst message I ever delivered was given to a group of junior high students when I was first starting my career. I didn’t like speaking to this age group, because they aren’t exactly eager to build the self-esteem of a speaker. And after all, it was all about me.
Junior high students are the only demographic in the universe that can climb the walls and swing from the chandeliers and not miss a word you say. It was a bad night. I had laryngitis. The group was inattentive and had weapons in their possession. They had played a game blowing Q-tips at each other through straws, and the leaders had not felt it necessary to collect these before my talk. I was not only an easy target—I was the only target.
I tried my best humor, my most poignant stories, to no avail. Finally, in response to one of my best jokes, a boy in back responded with a loud and disrespectful, “Har har har!” Something in my head snapped. I remember thinking, “Okay, no more Mr. Nice Guy. No more fun stuff.” I dove into my own rendition of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” There wasn’t a shred of grace or compassion in my presentation. I just wanted to get it over with. I had failed.
The leaders had asked me to give an invitation. I did so reluctantly.
About 70 junior high children stood indicating their desire to trust Christ. I told them to sit down. Surely, they did not understand the gravity of the situation; I had made it too easy. I reminded them of the cost of discipleship, how their friends would respond, about repentance, and turning their backs on sin. “Now,” I said, “If you still want to trust Christ, stand up.” The same students jumped to their feet and were taken to a room for counseling.
In spite of the response, I was feeling defeated. How crazy is that? I was still focused on me and the lack of response to my “performance.” It didn’t matter that they wanted to know God; I was sure they didn’t like me. I began to feel a little guilty for my selfish and vindictive attitude.
As I sought a drinking fountain to cool my sore throat, I walked past the room where these precious souls were being counseled. I paused there and heard a 13-year-old boy pray the most profound and sincere prayer of commitment to Christ I have ever heard. My tears were instant, and sobs came from a deep place in my soul. I had made that evening all about me, and as a result, I had done everything wrong. Not even my heart had been in the right place. But God saw the hearts of 70 little hyperactive squirmers that needed his love and forgiveness. He used my worst to accomplish his best. I rejoice in the truth of Philippians 1:18: “What then? Notwithstanding, in every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.” But I pray that I will never again be such a perfect example of “pretence.”
I have never forgotten that night. The Holy Spirit must have worked overtime. These days, the last words I say before I step on stage or into the pulpit are these: “Dear Lord, don’t let me forget, it’s not about me. It is about your Word and the people who need to hear it.” I can’t tell you the freedom and passion it has brought to my preaching and speaking.
My prayer is that this article might help at least one pastor rethink the value of their preparation process and rediscover new adventures with the Savior. I pray that our eyes might be opened to the powerful work of the Holy Spirit who pierces hearts with the Word of God, and that we will preach with confidence knowing that God can use even our weakest moments to accomplish his purpose. Finally, I pray that God would free us from the bondage of preaching to impress and measuring our value by the response of the audience. Lord, please help us see the needs of those who sit before us and to use our platform to give to them what you have given us. Lord, let us speak the truth with renewed passion.
I never pass a soldier in the airport without thanking him or her for service to our country. I will take this opportunity to thank you, Pastor, for your service to our Lord. I hope these few suggestions will encourage you to continue preaching the good news with power and passion.